The Emotions of Climate Change
By: Alex Colvin
In June 2021, the ClimateActionWR collaborative announced the TransformWR strategy, our long-term and short-term strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the Waterloo Region by 80% below 2010 levels by 2050 with an interim goal of a 30% reduction by 2030. ClimateActionWR is working with all eight Waterloo Region municipalities to enact our equitable, collaborative, and comprehensive strategies to achieve our 80% by ’50 and 30% by ‘30 reductions, in accordance with the Paris Agreement and Canada’s pledge to reach net-zero by 2050. You can find the details of the TransformWR strategy here.
THE EMOTIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
Climate change can be a frightening, unsettling, and upsetting topic to discuss. Which is not to say there aren’t reasons for hope, there are, and we’ll explore the reasons for hope and optimism throughout this article. While there is reason for optimism and we are seeing a lot of progress on climate action, some of the facts on what is changing and can be expected to change can be distressing. Some predictions are dire, although the worst-case climate scenarios are considered unlikely at this point. It is possible to feel hopeless considering how much needs to change and the sheer scope of what needs to be accomplished to prevent dangerous levels of warming and climate shifts. An enormous amount has been written about the dangers of climate change, what we must do to prevent the worst, and what is at stake. However, not enough has been said about how climate change makes people feel, how to cope with feelings around climate change, and what to do in difficult moments when facing the problem that is climate change.
But we would love to talk to you about the emotions that surround climate change. Maybe this type of discussion can help people know that being anxious, pessimistic, guilty, or hopeful about our changing climate is totally natural; and what you can do if you feel stuck.
CLIMATE CHANGE ANXIETY
Climate change anxiety is on the rise. Especially for people between the ages of 16 and 25. Which is completely understandable. Climate change is often talked about in what the world will be like in 2050 or 2100, which younger people today can expect to see for themselves. This can make these projections more anxiety-inducing. Plus, climate change is a bigger problem than any one person, or any one nation, can solve. The scope and extent of the problem can cause a feeling of powerlessness, which can lead to a sense of hopelessness or anxiety. This is also completely normal. But there are ways to manage climate anxiety to feel less stressed about climate change and to turn anxiety into a cause for action.
Suggestions to manage anxiety, such as meditation and relaxation, are a great option. But other recommendations, like communication, spending time in nature, and some level of climate change activism or involvement, can also be a huge help. Talking about your climate anxieties with friends and family can be hugely helpful to connect and share perspectives. As noted earlier, climate change is a global problem and not something anyone should feel they need to manage alone. Visiting nature, such as Provincial Parks or a hiking trail can also be a soothing way to connect with nature and enjoy the reserves and natural areas we do have. Time in nature can also be reaffirming, to remember what you’re hoping to preserve and to see the marvels of our planet for yourself. And finally, getting involved in climate change activism or awareness campaigns, whether volunteering in person, on social media, or online, can be a way to connect with people who are looking for change and have incredible ideas about how to improve our ideas and methods for dealing with climate change. While none of these are a perfect cure for climate change anxiety, they can offer help if you’re struggling and need direction in how to engage with a changing climate.
GUILT & CLIMATE CHANGE
Blame and guilt are two especially uncomfortable discussions to have in regards to climate change. Plus, blame is a very complicated thing to assign in climate change. Rich countries are responsible for most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and there is a growing sense that rich nations have a climate debt to pay to the world in how they mitigate climate change and fund adaptation for more climate-vulnerable countries. But the blame for climate change can be more complex when looking for culpable individuals or organizations. Blame has been cast on political leaders, fossil fuel companies, and on the individual, for the world’s growing emissions over the last century. But blame isn’t necessarily helpful, and can detract from moving forward on climate action and efforts to promote climate equity. Shifting discussions away from blame can lead to more constructive discussions to promote helping and healing in the community, which can do far more good overall.
Guilt, meanwhile, is strongly associated with blame, and if you feel guilty about the emissions from your own lifestyle, from transportation, the energy you use, or the objects you use in everyday life, it’s important to know that a lot of work has gone into shifting the guilt of climate change from fossil-fuel intensive organizations to the individual. For example, maybe you’ve heard of the ‘carbon footprint calculator?’ It is a digital quiz that lets you see the extent of greenhouse gasses you are personally responsible for. Maybe you have even tried to calculate your carbon footprint. If you have, please know that it is a somewhat misleading means of understanding your responsibility for climate change.
You see, greenhouse gas emissions are released when fossil fuels are burned, but it is a long process involving a lot of companies, regulations, and societal norms to get fossil fuels into a driver’s gas tank or a homeowner’s furnace from their original location. Fossil fuels have to be extracted from the ground, refined, transported to where they will be used, and then used as fuel. The emissions for fossil fuels tend to be counted at the tailpipe where they are burned, as opposed to the wellhead where they are pulled out of the ground. This wellhead vs tailpipe discussion has been going on for years and it illustrates a key point about climate change guilt and hope: that the causes of climate change are layered and complex, and that fossil fuel usage is (unfortunately) built into how our society is powered right now.
Climate change can make it seem like the burden is on the individual while the solutions depend on the world, but the whole story of climate change is much more complicated than that. Assigning blame and guilt, while cathartic, doesn’t always account for the very long history of our relationship with Earth’s climate, and it might be more helpful to focus on positive emotions around climate change, like the conviction and hope that things can improve and we can aim for better.
RESILIENCE & HOPE
There are reasons to be hopeful about how humanity can respond to climate change. A brilliant recent video by Kurzgesagt explains the reasons to be hopeful for preventing the worst of climate change quite well, noting that while we have a long way to go, there has been an enormous amount of progress in understanding and responding to climate change. Basically, over the past five years, there has been an enormous shift in how people view and talk about climate change. Different levels of government across Canada are making plans for steep emissions cuts by 2030 (including the Waterloo Region!) and Canada has a legally-binding target of net-zero emissions by 2050. These new plans are in line with what scientists say we need to do in order to limit warming to dangerous levels.
While news about the world’s climate can certainly be dire, there are lots of reasons for hope and optimism when looking back at how climate change has grown as an issue and how conversations and action around climate change have evolved since the collapsed Kyoto Protocol in the 1990s. While there is a long way to go, the progress in climate change being recognized and addressed as an urgent issue is encouraging. If nothing else, keep in mind that there is an ongoing global effort to prevent climate change from worsening, with experts in the Waterloo Region writing parts of and negotiating the international efforts to report on climate change. Local organizations, including all townships in the Waterloo Region, from Kitchener, Cambridge, and Waterloo to Wellesley, Wilmot, Woolwich, and North Dumfries, are taking individual and collective steps to address climate change and build resilience in their communities.
IF YOU FEEL STUCK
If climate change has you frightened or anxious, the team at ClimateActionWR has found some resources through the Mental Health and Climate Change Alliance (MHCCA). They offer lists of climate-aware counselors, climate wellbeing kits, and a variety of projects and resources to connect with people and share stories regarding climate anxiety. You can also check out the Good Grief Network that offers a program of ten week virtual sessions aimed at harnessing your overwhelming and painful feelings into positive action in your community. Always know that there are options out there for processing and talking about climate change, and most importantly, that you’re never alone in dealing with climate change.
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